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The perversion of the English language Pointing out linguistic abuses is a perilous business

'Scientology' is a tautology. TriStar/Getty Images

'Scientology' is a tautology. TriStar/Getty Images


January 4, 2024   6 mins

What is the most overused word in the English language at present? “Incredible.” Just count how many times it crops up in an evening’s TV viewing. It’s almost never used literally. “Incredible” literally means not to be believed, but when people say they work incredibly hard they’re not inviting you to disbelieve them. The English language is rich in superlatives — supreme, extraordinary, magnificent, exceptional, astonishing — but only three are in regular use: incredible, amazing and fantastic. The runaway success of “incredible” is currently being challenged by the clunky “impactful”. “Impact” moved centre stage fairly recently, ousting “effect”. Instead of asking if something is impactful you could just ask if it’s effective, rather as the bureaucratic phrase “on a daily basis” could be replaced by the simpler “every day”. But some gluttons for linguistic labour prefer four words where two would do.

A few years ago, the ground suddenly became the floor. For centuries the ground has been outdoors and the floor indoors, but now people fighting in the street are said to roll around on the floor. Armed police confronting a criminal in a park now shout “Get down on the floor!” when they mean the ground, to which a smart villain might reply “But there isn’t a floor around here!” You can find some fascinating plants in the woods if you look on the floor. You’re unlikely to find an existential crisis there, however. Existential crises are also a recent phenomenon, and involve a use of the word “existential” you won’t find in any dictionary. It doesn’t mean “imminent” or “severe”, it means “actually existing”. So an existential crisis is an actually existing one, which is the only kind of crisis you’re likely to come across. Non-existential crises are as rare as Trotskyist taxi drivers. If you want to impress your friends at dinner parties, you could say: “The morning star and the evening star are conceptually distinct but existentially identical”, meaning that the words mean different things but refer to the same actually existing object (the planet Venus). Or perhaps you should just say: “I had an incredibly impactful existential crisis on the Hyde Park floor.”

Some verbal innovations stick and some don’t. “Hopefully”, for example, doesn’t mean “It is to be hoped that”, which is what everyone uses it to mean; it means to do something while full of hope. But nobody is going to abandon the term just because a professor points this out, so what once would have been a misuse is now an acceptable usage. This is part of how languages work. The archaic word “anon” once meant “right away”, but given the human tendency to procrastinate it came to mean “soon” or “shortly”. For much the same reason, “I’ll be with you immediately” means the opposite of what it says, while “presently” once meant “right away” but now means “in a while”. “A mental health episode” also means the opposite of what it says. It’s just that people can’t bring themselves to talk about mental illness.

To refute is not to deny something but to prove that it’s wrong. So when someone says “I refute that”, you could always say, “Alright then, go on, refute it”. These days, “literally” is no longer to be taken literally. Someone described Ghislaine Maxwell as “literally the apple of her father’s eye”, which would have seriously affected his vision. People now literally explode with rage or literally fall through the floor with astonishment. Pubs are “literally just down the road” — rather, perhaps, than metaphorically so.

“Criteria” and “phenomena” are now used as though they are singular nouns. Even my computer does this in the case of “criteria”. People who are trying to talk or write in a “polite” way (Morrissey in his autobiography, for example) say things like “It’s an exciting time for you and I”, probably because they think “you and me” is too colloquial. But “you and me” is correct here — or, to put the point in a quaintly old-fashioned lingo nobody speaks any more, a pronoun takes the accusative case after a preposition. “It’s I” is grammatically correct but unacceptable; we’d say “It’s me” instead.

A “fulsome” apology isn’t whole-hearted but grovelling. The word “internet” is strictly speaking a tautology, like “unmarried bachelor”, since all nets are inter. One of a million good reasons for not becoming a Scientologist is that that’s a tautology too: “logy” means “knowledge” and so does “science”, so “Scientology” means the knowledge of knowledge. It’s doubtful that being told this would induce Tom Cruise to tear up his membership card. Or consider “She may potentially go on to study law in Berlin”. Spot the superfluous word in that sentence. “Potentially” is almost always unnecessary. A lot of people stick in a “potentially” when they use the future tense, but as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said, it’s like a cog in the machine of language that isn’t meshing with anything.

Lots of verbal expressions have changed over time. We used to describe a collection of things as “several” or “many”, but now it’s the more technical-sounding “multiple”. There used to be questions about the steel industry, but now they’re around the steel industry. Things were once up to you but now they’re down to you. They were once sorted out, but now they’re just sorted. Once upon a time only babies and parcels were delivered; now everything is. “Begging the question” used to mean assuming the truth of something you’re trying to prove, but for the last century or so it’s come to mean raising a question.

There used to be changes, but today they’re almost all sea-changes or step-changes, while some windows have become brief, generous or rapidly narrowing, which our ancestors would have found as puzzling as doors being neurotic or munificent. People used to say that they were standing in a queue, but nowadays they say that they were stood in it. The same goes for “were sitting” and “were sat”. To use that old-fashioned lingo again, the imperfect tense is giving way to the perfect. Since these changes are almost certainly here to stay, this is a good example of how what’s strictly speaking ungrammatical can become common currency. It isn’t strictly grammatical to say “politics is the art of the possible”, but nobody is going to alter the “is” to “are”.

Good grammar forbids ending a sentence with a preposition, but you don’t often hear “This is a situation up with which I shall not put”. T sounds are now regularly dropped off the ends of words (“startin”, “deep in my hear”), and may well vanish altogether in the future, but they aren’t pronounced either in the poshest French, and there’s no law that decrees that every sound in a word must be pronounced. If you live in Burnley or Barnsley, dropping your h’s may be the correct thing to do. If you live in Camden or Chipping Norton, or anywhere where “a pat on the back” becomes “a pet on the beck”, it probably isn’t. There’s no reason why regional forms of speech should conform to Standard English. In fact, Standard English itself was once a regional form of speech. I went to school near Manchester, where pupils from small Lancashire mill towns would say things like “Hast tha seen ‘im over yon?” or “Ah’m reet jiggered” (I’m really tired). Given the conventions of their linguistic community, this was the right way for them to talk.

Language is interwoven with our forms of life. To give an example: people today quite often use the word “necessarily” unnecessarily, as in “It isn’t necessarily that all Tasmanian greengrocers are psychotic, it’s just that some of them are a bit eccentric”. What they mean is that all Tasmanian greengrocers aren’t psychotic at all, but adding a “necessarily” makes the statement sound less definite, and being indefinite is what postmodern culture prizes, in contrast to being certain. Certainty these days is increasingly equated with dogmatism, so that to say “It’s nine o’clock” is unpleasantly unambiguous, whereas “It’s like nine o’clock” is suitably tentative, provisional, open-ended and anti-authoritarian. Not many postmodernists, however, are so cavalier about certainty when it comes to finding out whether their bank account has been raided, or whether a certain drug might cause foetal abnormalities.

Language is a central constituent of our humanity. It’s true that some other animals employ highly complex sign-systems, but it’s unlikely that dolphins have come up with an equivalent of War and Peace, unless they are being remarkably furtive about it. Since language is the medium in which we hatch concepts, it’s what allows us to perform life-saving surgery, but also to turn flame-throwers on peasants’ huts. So are we superior or inferior to creatures that can do neither? The answer is an unequivocal yes and no.

Pointing out linguistic abuses is a perilous business. Language is so intimate an activity that to criticise the way somebody uses it can feel like undermining their identity. People have fought and died over the right to speak a particular language, or the freedom not to speak one imposed on them by an alien power. In 19th-century Ireland, schoolchildren sometimes wore sticks around their necks in class, and the stick was notched each time they used an Irish word. At the end of the school day, the child with the most notches was beaten in front of its fellows. Yet the teachers who ran this system were mostly Irish themselves, and might well have been Irish speakers. They were concerned that their students should succeed in life, and speaking English was thought essential to that end. The Irish constitution exists in two versions, one English and one Irish. Both documents state that in the event of a discrepancy between the two, the Irish version will be deemed to take precedence. But the Irish version is widely believed to be a translation of the English version. This is the kind of thing the English call “very Irish”.

One peculiarity of language is that it is effectively infinite. There’s always more of the stuff to come. I could, for example, carry on writing this essay indefinitely, except for the fact that I’m reet jiggered, so I won’t.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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Colin William Neilson
Colin William Neilson
6 months ago

Spot on re the overuse of the word incredible. Politicians sound like morons these days

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
6 months ago

And what about sport commentators?

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
6 months ago

Amazing comment.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago

Iconic!

Tony Price
Tony Price
6 months ago

Everyone (!) does! It is my most hated word as it usually replaces the far more apposite ‘very’. Makes me cringe every time I hear it (ie several times a day).

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
6 months ago

This perversion is unprecedented.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
6 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

2020 was the great year of “unprecedented”. It was incredible.

J Guy
J Guy
6 months ago

Thanks for that — a much-needed break from all of this week’s doom prophesies.

Matt B
Matt B
6 months ago
Reply to  J Guy

You mean ‘polycrises’?

Benjamin Perez
Benjamin Perez
6 months ago

In America (or at least in California), I’ve noticed that people, especially young people, say “perfect” instead of fine, okay, or yes. E.g., at a coffee house: “I’d like a small coffee, black” — response: “Perfect.” Is “perfect” the new “awesome”?

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  Benjamin Perez

Any new fad in the USA is bound to end up being imported into the UK in a year or so. So thanks, Benjamin, for giving us Brits a glimpse into our linguistic future.
Young Brits in cafés still say “awesome” when they are given a sticky bun, but mercifully, the person behind the counter usually maintains a grim British silence.

miss pink
miss pink
6 months ago
Reply to  Benjamin Perez

No, as you stated in your first sentence, it’s the new fine, okay or yes.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
6 months ago
Reply to  Benjamin Perez

You’ve mentioned one of my bugbears – nobody says ‘may I have’, or ‘I’d like’ anymore, it’s always ‘can I get’.
If you’re getting it then you work there – Grr!!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

You speak for me. I can’t stand “can I get”.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
6 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

I always say “May I have a cup of tea, please?”
II have been known to tell my daughter who sometimes uses the “can I” abomination that I don’t know if she can, but she certainly may as far as I am concerned!
Her response? “I knew that you would say that!” Very well then.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago

For some, dropping a ‘t’ is essential for career progression. Female Labour politicians deliberately drop t’s because they think it makes them sound more proletarian.

Andrew D
Andrew D
6 months ago

Not just female. Blair, Osborne and Sunak all did/do it

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Whenever Sunak tries to sound sincere, he sounds just like Blair pretending to be sincere.

Adam Huntley
Adam Huntley
6 months ago

Ironically though the production of the glottal stop (which is the technical term for dropping ts) actually requires more vocal energy than the production of the voiceless, alveolar, plosive (or “t”)

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
6 months ago

In some parts of Scotland, not having a glottal stop is a badge of pride. It means that whole sentences can be made up of vowels and everyone in the tribe gets it. Outsiders, not so much!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

I understand French better than I understand some Glaswegians.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
6 months ago

Overuse of superlatives has ruined sports commentary. If a goalkeeper touches the ball, the commentator invariably describes it as an “incredible save”. Wrong on many levels.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I’ve never understood what a “stonewall penalty” is.
Nor commentators “betting their mortgage” on a game – a mortgage being a debt and not an asset. I’d happily bet away my mortgage, but haven’t found any takers yet.
But finally, a Terry Eagleton article out of the top drawer (yes, incorrectly starting a sentence with “but”).

54321
54321
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’ve never understood what a “stonewall penalty” is.

I think its where you fail one of their diversity audits and loads of trans activists start attacking you on Twitter.

Andrew H
Andrew H
6 months ago
Reply to  54321

Chapeau!

AC Harper
AC Harper
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Newspapers have spoiled the reporting of news too. So there is a ‘War on Drugs’ but no soldiers are involved. Politicians ‘attack’ each other but there is no actual violence or blood on the floor (or ground). Snow ‘blankets Britain’ but only a few high hills and mountain tops get any major snowfall.
No wonder people become desensitised to exaggerated speech – so activists try to intensify their language to apocalyptic proportions. Garnering more indifference.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The best one has to come from the BBC, natch… (sorry!)

A headline proclaimed that December in the UK was the “hottest on record”

Of course, what was meant was the “mildest” but that wouldn’t fit with the endless climate scare narrative.

Tony Price
Tony Price
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

If it was referring to absolute temperature then ‘hottest’ is surely correct? ‘Mildest’ is a subjective word referring to the comfort of the individual concerned. Still, needlessly bashing the BBC is a popular sport herewith.

L Walker
L Walker
6 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Warmest?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The current exaggeration is the use of genocide to mean killing more of your enemy than the enemy has killed on your side, as if war should involve a strict t*t for tat and no more. Traditionally you went on killing until the enemy sued for peace and laid down their arms. Genocide should be confined to deliberate attempts to wipe out a people who have surrendered and are no longer at war.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

That save inspired me with awe

Pat Davers
Pat Davers
6 months ago

“How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks”
“I was inquiring about the state of your health, not your moral probity”

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
6 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

What a wonderful retort! I also commend you for using the word probity, which is not commonly used at all anymore. Its lack of usage might be interpreted as aptly fitting for a society that lacks moral clarity and principles!

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
6 months ago

This problem of the sloppiness of spoken English arises because English speakers are not forced to learn a second language. A new language forces you to listen very intently and you become aware of bad grammar and bad practices.
I speak four languages and it is quite noticeable that native English-speakers are the sloppiest (should that be most sloppy?). I compare here the written word with the spoken word in each language.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

At least that’d spare those learning English as a second language from “sloppy seconds”

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago

“I speak four languages.”
#MeToo.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
6 months ago

I’d rather say that English is the most flexible and subtle of the (four) languages I know, often given to re-purposing familiar words in a striking way, which is why it has one of the richest literatures in the West (I don’t know any Asian, Arabic or African languages unfortunately). The French try to keep control of their language through the pronouncements of the Academy; the Spanish through their official dictionary. The Germans make up new words by accumulating existing words to produce grotesque neologisms. Polish, a beautiful language, is fully inflected which, again, limits its inventiveness in my inexpert opinion.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
6 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Polish has quadruple negatives, which is not unconfusing.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
6 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

And in Malay, one man is ‘orang’, and two men are ‘orang orang’. Disappointingly, it stops there, or your review of, say, ‘Twelve Angry Men’ would take a while to write down.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago

Repetition in Malay and Indonesian works as an amplifier as well as a numerical multiplier. For instance “jalan” means “walk” (as well as “road/street”), and “jalan jalan” means “run”.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Haha!

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
6 months ago

Really? Portuguese people seem to me to miss out half the words in each sentence.

Matt B
Matt B
6 months ago

True

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
6 months ago

What is true English? We were taught in English but it was nothing like what we spoke at home. I spoke Doric with one half of my family and Scots with the other. Neither is “sloppy” English. I learned BSL as an adult and it is nothing like English either.So please explain what English is and how “sloppy” English differs from “sloppy” Italian, German or French, for example.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
6 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

I would say that each of the versions with which you are familiar qualify as proper English , but think the things about which the author complains can be called sloppy English, which is to say lazy, or clichéd. Ironically, it usually means adding adjectives, or prefixes.
I like it that many different accents or dialects have survived, e.g. Liverpool and Manchester, and sad that in some places, they haven’t. In my youth, the Sussex accent was often to be heard around us, especially from farmers and agricultural workers, but I haven’t heard it for years.
The author chose one of my unfavourites, ‘step-change’, but ‘epicentre’ is surely even more irritating, since it has a meaning of its own. I’d agree that ‘incredible’ is incredibly over used, especially by politicians. I could fill pages with such clichés and jargon, but prefer to do something rewarding.
Using ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ is amusing, because the speaker is trying to be correct by not using ‘me’ when it should be ‘I’.
If I were speaking publicly, I’d be worried that I might make a grammatical error, and am then surprised and disappointed that journalists and politicians, who are mostly well paid, and presumably well-educated and experienced, will create what I consider to be distractingly bad English, especially when they had the chance of checking it.
For my part, I often re-read what I have written, and delete anything superfluous, especially adjectives or superlatives.

Ian May
Ian May
6 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

Does ‘true’ English even exist?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago

 “Incredible” literally means not to be believed”
No it doesn’t, it means not able to be believed.
“Existential crises are also a recent phenomenon, and involve a use of the word “existential” you won’t find in any dictionary. It doesn’t mean “imminent” or “severe”, it means “actually existing”.”
Get a grip, Terry. The phrase “existential crisis” clearly denotes a threat to continued existence. Hence “existential” is being used in a way which clearly aligns with its dictionary definition.
“logy” means “knowledge”
No it doesn’t, it means “study”. “Biology” is the study and not the knowledge of living organisms.
“Things were once up to you but now they’re down to you.”
In this context, “up” denotes choice and “down” denotes responsibility or blame.

Andrew D
Andrew D
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Reminds me of the expression ‘He was up before everyone else was down, that is down before everyone else was up’. A language designed to confuse foreigners.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

All languages are designed to confuse foreigners.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Thank you Richard. You did this better than I could.

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Ha! As much as I loved the article, your pedantic corrections are even better. Let’s be language Nazis, but have fun doing it.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Excellent work Richard.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

“Study” is only one meaning of “-logy”, based of folk etymology. If biology is the study of life, and bio means life then logy must mean study. But biology means not only the studying of life but the entire body of knowledge of life so -logy (which comes from “logos”, which means “word/speech” or “reason” but not “study”) also means “knowledge” i.e. science, which was the original meaning anyway. See “History of Biology” on Wikipedia

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Almost.

‘…logy’ means ‘pertaining to words’, from the Greek ‘logos’ (a word). Hence ‘Biology’ is ‘words about life’.

‘Knowledge about life’ should, strictly speaking, be referred to as ‘Biosophy’, using the Greek word ‘sophia’ (‘knowledge’, as in ‘philosophy’, the love of knowledge).

‘Knowledge’ means (literally) ‘knowing words’.

Of course, study leads to ‘words’, and knowledge, so ‘…logy’ has come to refer to study AND knowledge.

But true pedantry necessitates accuracy.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Yes, a somewhat problematic article. But it is what it is and we are where we are.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Now we know who Richard Craven is, but questions remain.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
6 months ago

Hats off to Terry. A whimsical, if occasionally inaccurate, essay.

When I saw the title and the author I expected some intellectual contortion attempting to convince me that the words men and women have no objective meaning, or equity actually means equality, or some other justification of leftist distortion.

54321
54321
6 months ago

Language evolves, its generally not something to get too stressed about, except in particular cases where it evolves too quickly for shared understanding.
That said, I doubt I’ll ever fully reconcile myself to the modern use of “literally” to mean its exact opposite.

Alan Bright
Alan Bright
6 months ago
Reply to  54321

A colleague once told me that her brother’s ‘phone was literally glued to his ear. I literally jumped down her throat.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
6 months ago

The Prof is a bit unreliable on some of these: as already pointed out by others, “existential” does not mean “existing”; it means “having to do with existence”. So an “existential threat” is a threat to existence, not an existing threat.
I agree that woods don’t have floors, but oddly forests do.

Nunya Business
Nunya Business
6 months ago

Loved this. The mental health one particularly grates. Seeing posters for charities that say ‘We all have mental health’, etc. If that were true, those organisations wouldn’t need to exist!

Saul D
Saul D
6 months ago

The thing I like about the English language is its illogicalities and warpings as the comparative lack of grammar is made up for by the shedload of words. Awful – full of awe, and Wonderful – full of wonder – mean the opposite. Fast means both quick moving and stuck (and not eating). Sink both holds water and is enveloped in water. Other languages even adopt new words that are English-like because English allows it – eg shampooing, bicing or Fukuppy (look it up), while English maintains its abuse of mottos and bon mots where and when ever it can.

Terry M
Terry M
6 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

Cleave.

Matt B
Matt B
6 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

..age (rocks and wrinkles, of course)

Matt B
Matt B
6 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

And even words like shampoo were imported into English in the first place – further underlining its flexibility in both in/out trays.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
6 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

There’s an apocryphal(?) claim that Wren was complimented on his design and construction of St Paul’s with the flattering notion that it was not only awful, but pompous and terrible too. Which is to say (or was), awesome, magnificent and inspiring the fear of god.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
6 months ago

At the risk of being linguistically abusive…
The word internet comes from the connection of local networks together into one large interconnected network. It is the thing between different nets that joins them together so it is inter net.
Questions around something accurately infers the questioner most definitely wants to avoid any direct questions about something. A subtle linquistic cue not to ask difficult questions. It’s usage is more common now because direct questions are, like, literally hate, right?
Politics is syntactically singular as are many other words ending in ics such as mathematics and economics. It is grammatical to say “politics is the art of…” just as it is grammatical to say “mathematics is the study of…”.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
6 months ago

“Existential crises are also a recent phenomenon, and involve a use of the word “existential” you won’t find in any dictionary. It doesn’t mean “imminent” or “severe”, it means “actually existing”. So an existential crisis is an actually existing one, which is the only kind of crisis you’re likely to come across. Non-existential crises are as rare as Trotskyist taxi drivers.”
He lost me here. ‘Existential’ means relating to existence. So if I find myself at a point at which my very existence is somehow in question, this constitutes an existential crisis.
For example, if I am a devout monk, and suddenly irrefutable proof presents itself that God is a flying spaghetti monster, this would disrupt my entire system of belief (that which properly constitutes my existence as a monk), and therefore qualifies as an existential crisis.

Jim Hewson
Jim Hewson
6 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I believe the appearance of the word ‘existential’ arose from the emergence of the French philosophy of “Existentialism” which emerged in my lifetime and so excited us self-appointed intellectual teenage rebels in the 60’s……

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Hewson

Yes. To me, an existential crisis is a psychological crisis regarding the meaning of life, usually over a newly perceived “lack” of meaning. “Why am I alive?”, in short.

Andrew Dean
Andrew Dean
6 months ago

‘Internet’ isn’t a tautology, it’s a pleonasm. As is “unmarried bachelor”.

Adam Huntley
Adam Huntley
6 months ago

Surely the most ubiquitous false understanding of word meaning I come across is “woke simply means being awake to injustice”. Yes, it is undoubtedly the case that it is the origin of its meaning. But if you point out that multiple meaning of words can occur over time, one is met with the objection that theirs is the dictionary definition. Well, all right, get a more up to date dictionary then. If you point out that a 1960 dictionary has the word “gay” as cheerful and no reference to same sex preference, the penny may well drop. To which I have found a common response is “oh, you’re just playing with semantics”. As if the implication that being aware of social injustice means you therefore accept the identity politics and intersectionality narrative of the woke isn’t!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago
Reply to  Adam Huntley

The irony being that it’s they/them who are playing with semantics.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
6 months ago

A Terry Eagleton article that I enjoyed.

There is necessarily a first time for everything.

Michael James
Michael James
6 months ago

Sometimes linguistic evolution loses useful distinctions. ‘Compared with’ refers to differences; ‘compared to’ refers to similarities. But ‘compared with’ has almost disappeared and nearly all comparisons nowadays are ‘to’.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago
Reply to  Michael James

..

Terry M
Terry M
6 months ago

So an existential crisis is an actually existing one, which is the only kind of crisis you’re likely to come across. Non-existential crises are as rare as Trotskyist taxi drivers. 
No, try global warming. Non-existential.

Matt B
Matt B
6 months ago

While “unacceptable”, “direction of travel”, “the government (or a country) have”, “weather bomb”, “what do “we” know”, and countless other media fads add to the mix.

Martin Rossol
Martin Rossol
6 months ago

I haven’t yet figure out how to AI to do the analysis or get the answer, but dare say “absolutely”, if not the most ‘abused’ word [at least in the US] is in the top five. The better word is ‘yes’. And just for good measure, the use of ‘myself’ when the correct word [is there still such a creature?] is ‘me’, should also get some air time [or is it ‘etime’?].
You have to love words.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin Rossol

People are terrified of using “me” It’s fun to use as a kind of secret snobbery- knowing you are right even though your public feels embarrassed for you thinking you are wrong.
The trend here is the USA that is driving me crazy is:
“I’m sorry”
“Your good”
Can we not be sorry anymore?

Daoud Fakhri
Daoud Fakhri
6 months ago

One of my bugbears is when people answer “absolutely” instead of “yes” to a question. This has become the norm in TV and radio interviews, where the interviewee presumably thinks it makes them sound more authoritative.
And one more: when did “annual leave” take over from “holiday?” Once upon a time, only military personnel took annual leave; now every office worker in the land using this phrase in their email auto-replies when they’re on holiday. Why? Is it supposed to sound more purposeful and less frivolous?

Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin
6 months ago

He missed out the worst new offence, thankfully mostly confined to advertising (for now?): the use of adjectives in place of adverbs and even nouns. So “eat beautiful”, “find your happy”. Anyone have any idea how this atrocity came about?

Andrew Dean
Andrew Dean
6 months ago
Reply to  Vadim Nikitin

How about nouns used as verbs: he ‘summitted Mt Everest” “She medalled at the Olympics”.?

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dean

Or adjective to noun as in physicality. A word that seems to have been created by sports commentators.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Quite a few get started that way: “On the 3-1 pitch, a high fastball, Babe Ruth homered to dead center field”
That type of usage is probably at least 100 years old.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
6 months ago
Reply to  Vadim Nikitin

I think it came over from the USA.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
6 months ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Perhaps it journeyed here?

Jo Simpson
Jo Simpson
6 months ago

Maybe it was ‘gifted” to UK by USA?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago
Reply to  Jo Simpson

Only after the UK reached out to the USA.

L Walker
L Walker
6 months ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Stop blaming us for all your problems. Floor for ground is your abomination not ours.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
6 months ago
Reply to  L Walker

American resident and citizen here. I’ve heard New Yorkers use it, since a few more years ago than Eagleton suggests. I think it’s more of a hyper-metropolitan thing.
But amen on the blaming front. When I visit my birth country of Canada from time to time, I get inundated with a lot of blame, as if big bad Uncle Sam ruined their otherwise-paradise and I had a lot to with it myself. What a cheap alibi!

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
6 months ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

I suspect you’re correct!

Ernest John Tarling
Ernest John Tarling
6 months ago
Reply to  Vadim Nikitin

My bad.

David Gardner
David Gardner
6 months ago
Reply to  Vadim Nikitin

Sounds like it came from Japan. They are very good at such mystifications.

Andrew R
Andrew R
6 months ago

The words you will find in the headings of Guardian Op-Eds: “vile”, “chilling” and “terrifying”.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
6 months ago

Whenever the fright wigged spokeswoman for Joe Biden is asked a question and she answers, “”I’m not gonna speak to that”, my eyes literally roll out of my head.

Jim Hewson
Jim Hewson
6 months ago

But only after they have “circled back to it”……

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
6 months ago

*figuratively.

Nick Toeman
Nick Toeman
6 months ago

“The bus will leave momentarily,” said the Californian driver. For a moment I thought we’re not going to get far in however many milliseconds that is.
“I’m disinterested in classical music,” a colleague told me. I didn’t probe him about whether he had a preference for Beethoven or Mozart, Bach or Boulez, orchestral or chamber, etc. I was uninterested in whatever his answer would be.
“It was fortuitous that you didn’t fall off the cliff when you went that close to the edge,” she said. It was certainly fortunate but I was very careful and the chance was pretty low.
Some changes to our use of words don’t matter much but we do also lose meanings that will then require whole sentences to explain clearly, especially ‘disinterestd’.

0 0
0 0
6 months ago

I’ve noticed people more and more when referring to floor they call it the ground. smh

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

Like, this is incredibly problematic and quite concerning. I’m literally going to need time to process it all.

0 0
0 0
6 months ago

Having, as requested,  made way for a younger director I wrote to the manager ‘I trust all goes well for you in the future.’
I was thanked for my ‘well wishes’. I shuddered but as English is not the native language of  the person in question I let it pass.
I wrote to my successor, a North American: ‘I send you my good wishes on your appointment to the board’.
The response was : ‘That’s very kind of you to reach out [more shudders] David. Thanks for the well wishes.’
This time I could not let it pass and wrote: ‘‘well’ is the ADVERB of the ADJECTIVE ‘good’.
The word ‘wish’ can be a verb or a noun: I wish[verb] to be an engine driver when I grow up/ my wish[noun] is to be an engine driver when I grow up.
You will note that I sent you ‘my good wishes’ as in that context wishes is a noun.  I could have written ‘I wish you well in your new position’. In this case I am using ‘wish’ as a verb so it requires the adverb ‘well’.
You cannot have ‘well wishes’ as that is pairing an adverb with a noun. The correct term is ‘good wishes’.
Final response : ‘I learn something everyday.’…….I wonder!

Brian Lemon
Brian Lemon
6 months ago

What does this essay literally have to do with?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
6 months ago

No mention of the word, “awesome”? It must be in the top 10 most overused and inappropriate words ever used!

DA Johnson
DA Johnson
6 months ago

Judging by the countless number of letters responding to this article…..

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
6 months ago

I enjoyed this article and liked its sense of purpose: precision as opposed to ‘perversion’–interesting choice of the latter word. The author mentions one of my bugbears, the current use of ‘around’ instead of ‘about’, which to me is imprecise, e.g., to walk ‘around’ a ship is to visit its outside only, while to walk ‘about’ a ship is to walk within it, thus becoming more familiar with its features. ‘Around’ can be misused in other ways, too. To talk ‘around’ a subject suggests circumlocution, whereas to speak ‘on’ one means to discuss it in detail. The author may be right in saying that language changes don’t usually correct themselves, but there can be no harm in pointing out better usage so that those interested in clarity of meaning can learn from it. (Next: use of ‘your item has shipped’ as opposed to ‘has been shipped’? –but that might be too much for today.)

Teresa Baker
Teresa Baker
6 months ago

Since when did “any more” become one word? When Microsoft spell checker decided it was. Look in any older dictionary and it doesn’t exist as a word. It’s really annoying when the Spellchecker keeps misspelling!

Julian Newman
Julian Newman
6 months ago
Reply to  Teresa Baker

I think I hit the jackpot for victimisation by automiscorerction yesterday, when the sentence Happy New Year to you was corrected to Hippy New Gear to youtuber.

Lynette McDougall
Lynette McDougall
6 months ago

Unprecedented is the new buzz word in Australia now. Recent bad weather across much of Queensland is being described as unprecedented. Except it is not unprecedented. People are just too lazy to look at historical records to see if there has been similar rainfall in the past. The problem is that more people are living in areas subject to flooding because old records were not examined to see if there was flooding in the past before the new developments were approved.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
6 months ago

It’s so easy to throw the label of “pedant” around and claim that all change equals growth. But that’s not quite true, is it?
Surely the test for any linguistic innovation is whether it easily makes things more clear (like “verbing” a noun – to google, to impact, to facepalm) or obscures the meaning of a statement, or destroys the usefulness of a word that already exists.
As i heard a friend say recently, “Did you mean ‘literally’ or millenialiterally?”

Christina Dalcher
Christina Dalcher
6 months ago

“Good grammar forbids ending a sentence with a preposition”

Sure. In Latin. 🙂

Annabelle and Peter Woodhouse
Annabelle and Peter Woodhouse
6 months ago

I miss adverbs. Did sports commentators start this?

Devin Brazier
Devin Brazier
6 months ago

May we please all just stop using the word ‘gift’ as a verb? It’s “this was given to me [as a gift]” not “this was gifted to me.” Same with “spend” acting as a noun in corporatespeak.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
6 months ago
Reply to  Devin Brazier

I have to respectfully disagree with your thoughts on “gifting”. If I give my wife my coat on a cold day, it might be seen as a courteous, even a chivalrous act. If I gift her my coat at Christmas, not so much.
I have great respect for our language, but when a word fills a need that no other word does, I’m all-in on linguistic expansion.
Not sure I’ve ever heard “spend” as a noun. Britcorporatespeak?

STEPHEN GILDERT
STEPHEN GILDERT
6 months ago

Having lived in Boston USA recently I noticed that servers in cafes and restaurants would say ” Of Course” after you told them your selection, which I found jarring and really odd. Has this usage appeared in the UK?

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
6 months ago

My pet bete noir is ‘at this moment in time’, meaning ‘now’.

It’s often used by minor officials when turning down a reasonable request.

Fiona English
Fiona English
6 months ago

I could use this as a marketing opportunity for our book on the usefulness of having knowledge about language and linguistics, but not sure I’m allowed!

Margaret Ford
Margaret Ford
6 months ago

Great article. Any ideas on consequences for future literature of writers adhering to preferred pronoun rules? I recently read a passage in Deborah Levy’s August Blue (if I remember correctly) in which she writes about a young boy who insists on they/them instead of he/him. It was well written but for me it confirmed that some changes to our language should not be accommodated, particularly in writing. I.e. use of the wrong pronouns is really confusing, doesn’t convey meaning precisely and isn’t compatible with clear written English.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

My absolute irritant is ‘hope that helps’.
Hope that helps.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
6 months ago

For me, the corruption of language is most evident with the abuse of pronouns.

J Rose
J Rose
6 months ago

Try asking people who use the words genocide and apartheid if they really know the definition.

I guarantee the majority don’t.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
6 months ago

Well, what are ya gonna do about it when you ain’t reet jiggered?

Gregory Toews
Gregory Toews
6 months ago

No Tasmanian greengrocer is psychotic. This seems like the only unambiguous way to verbalize that state of affairs.

Rhonda Culwell
Rhonda Culwell
6 months ago

an unequivocal yes and no. Made me laugh out loud! Literally!
A pet peeve of mine is when people start a sentence with “I mean” when they haven’t yet said anything they need to explain.

Andrew E Walker
Andrew E Walker
6 months ago

By far the worst neologism is overhype.

Andrew E Walker
Andrew E Walker
6 months ago

Another pet hate is the disappearance of the word “an.”

David Yetter
David Yetter
6 months ago

Actually, one of my pet hatreds is the nouning of the verb “hate”. English has a perfectly good noun for the purpose, “hatred.” Mind you, nouning verbs and verbing nouns are perfectly good ways of creating new usages in English, but they should be done when there isn’t already a good word to serve the purpose.

David Yetter
David Yetter
6 months ago

A lot of the examples of the corruption of English usage given are both spot on and at least drolly amusing. However, I must take exception to the objection to the use of “existential”. The OED provides as its third definition, “Of, relating to, or concerned with individual human existence, esp. as seen from the point of view of existentialism; of, relating to, or characteristic of existentialism; having, or prompted by, a keen awareness of individual freedom and responsibility,” attested by usage as early as 1873. Surely it is in this sense that the word is used to modify “crisis” in most instances of the phrase “existential crisis”.

H W
H W
6 months ago

‘Incredible’ is not at the top here in Canada. When you spell your name for a clerk, or when a student shows up to class, the typical response is one or more of: Awesome! Perfect! Amazing!

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
6 months ago

If ‘existential’ just means existing, what does ‘existent’ mean? ‘Existential’ can usefully mean ‘pertaining to existence’. Another gripe: when do we need ‘environmentally friendly’ when we already have ‘environment-friendly’? Americans are sometimes accused of murdering the English language, but they do know that ‘data’ and ‘politics’, like ‘criteria’ (thank you) are plural. A few of us even know that ‘decimate’ means to remove 10 per cent (greengrocers probably know this). If not, where should ‘devastate’ come in?

Steve Crowther
Steve Crowther
6 months ago

The most egregious phrase of the moment is surely ‘Lived experience’. Both in its absurd tautology (if you haven’t experienced it, it isn’t an experience) and in its simultaneous post-modern solipsism: my lived experience is all that matters, there are no blue whales in my world.

Ian May
Ian May
6 months ago

My current pet peeve word is ‘carnage’, as in ‘I went Christmas shopping and the trains were delayed and it was total carnage at the station’. Surely, it would only be carnage at the station if a train didn’t stop, ran through the buffers, and maimed and killed intending passengers?

Mark Hibbert-Hingston
Mark Hibbert-Hingston
6 months ago

No mention of my current (non-) favourite -“Can I get …?” when the speaker means “May I have …?” Drives me crazy, and embarrasses my children when I reply “No, but I will get it for you.”

William Edward Henry Appleby
William Edward Henry Appleby
6 months ago

Gay used to mean happy and carefree, and faggots were something I ate once a week, with peas and mashed potato.

g Hamway
g Hamway
5 months ago

I sympathise with nearly all of this (and many of the additions from fellow readers below) but I have to take issue with one thing you wish to correct (wrongly):
‘It isn’t strictly grammatical to say “politics is the art of the possible”, but nobody is going to alter the “is” to “are”.’
Well I jolly well hope they don’t, because politics here is used in a singular sense, as in ‘the art of politics’. Do you really want people to say ‘the art of the possible are politics’? Ouch.